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  • Apr 20, 2017

Obituary: Yüksel Arslan, 1933–2017

Right: YÜKSEL ARSLAN. Left: two works from the “Arture” series. Top: Arture 159, The Capital IX (Colonialisme). Bottom: Arture 188, An Attempt at Updating Capital, 1978.

The self-taught, self-exiled Turkish artist Yüksel Arslan, known for his allegorical paintings of class struggle and his loose affiliation with postwar surrealist circles, died in Paris at the age of 84. His death was announced by cartoonist Selçuk Demirel.

Yüksel Arslan was born in Istanbul in July 1933 in the Fatih neighborhood, the son of migrant factory workers. He was strongly influenced by Paul Klee as a teenager, and studied art history for two years at Istanbul University, and traveled across Anatolia learning about ancient and folk art. He left school to focus on his own art-making and had his first exhibition in 1955, at Gallery Maya, in Istanbul. In the late 1950s, he began to develop a method of making his own pigments and dyes, from minerals, vegetable extracts, egg whites, honey, natural materials, and bodily fluids (later including blood and urine). After his military service, his second exhibition in Istanbul, entitled “Phallisme,” attracted the attention of André Breton who invited Arslan to the International Surrealism Exhibition in 1959. Though decades younger than the original Surrealists, Arslan injected a new energy into the flagging movement.  

In 1961, Arslan was invited to Paris by Breton and the art dealer Raymond Cordier and he settled there for several years. During that time he developed his lifelong “Arture” series, a name he devised for his works (“art” plus the suffix “-ure,” as in "peinture”) to avoid being labeled  a painter or by any one media, and exhibited in Berlin, Paris and Copenhagen. Most notably, he was featured in the 1964 exhibition “The Origins, History and Relationships of Surrealism” at Galerie Charpentier. He returned to Turkey in 1967 for two years, where he begin a nearly decade-long series based on his reading Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. In 1969, Arslan went back to Paris where he remained in self-imposed exile from Turkey, until 2009 when he was the subject of a major retrospective at the Santralistanbul museum in Istanbul, curated by Levent Yılmaz.

Detail of YÜKSEL ARSLAN, Arture 407: L’Homme 48, Schizophrenes, 1989, mixed-media on paper, 35 × 75 cm, shown at Art Basel in June 2013 by Dirimart Gallery, Istanbul. Photo by HG Masters for ArtAsiaPacific.

Arslan’s works were labor-intensive, taking months to complete. After his “Capital” and “Updating Capital” works (all part of the "Arture" series), he began his works called “Influences” and “New Influences," which were based on his readings of philosophers such as René Descartes, Friedrich Nietzsche, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and poets Walt Whitman, Charles Baudelaire, Samuel Beckett, and many others.

Though Arslan exhibited throughout his life, including in a 2002 exhibition at then-newly opened Dirimart Gallery in Istanbul, he received a flood of attention in Europe following the Santralistanbul retrospective. That same year, 2009, several of his works were included in the 11th Istanbul Biennial, “What Keeps Mankind Alive?,” curated by What, How and for Whom/WHW. A 2012 retrospective at Kunsthalle Zurich was organized by Beatrix Ruf and Oliver Zybok and toured to Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and Kunsthalle Wien. In 2013, Arslan was featured in the 56th Venice Biennale, “The Encyclopedic Palace,” curated by Massimiliano Gioni. At the time of his death Arslan had created than 700 “Artures” in his lifetime, and will be remembered for his encyclopedic range of subject matter—botany, ethnology, economics, urban architecture, politics, autobiography, history, fantasy—in a genre uniquely his own, “between painting and writing, between painting and poetry.” His leftist political views and psycho-sexual investigations of human beings, following his interest in the writings of Sigmund Freud, remain hugely influential to the current generations of contemporary artists.

H.G. Masters is editor-at-large of ArtAsiaPacific.

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